Traditions beyond politics

For much of my life I have thought about questions of politics and government. How can government respond to any one of dozens of social issues that have occupied my professional life? What can government do? How can a policy issue be presented to political decision-makers in a way that holds their attention, if briefly, and sustains their commitment, preferably with real decisions about people, money, rules and services, and not merely the empty word-pictures of abstract change, so beloved by the consultocracy.

Recent events in my life – and perhaps the broader world, these are difficult times when we must confront moral beliefs capable of terrorist murder – have led me to doubt whether it is time to leave this field fallow for a few years. Our democratic governments are in a state of decay, with their administrative elites confused or treacherous about the purpose of democratic governing institutions. Managerialism has infected all institutions once served by a professional ethos. Political parties have lost all deep contact with vital social networks that might translate values into real political ideas, and have become patronage-ridden bureaucracies, over-stocked with networkers and advertisers, that turn political values into the degraded currency of brands. Universities lost their moral compass sometime after mass expansion and before turning education into an export industry. Their own forms of patronage persist despite mountains of managerialist rhetoric, and a sense of purpose serving the state, as perhaps imagined by von Humboldt, was long lost.

It is a grim stocktake, and perhaps it is to that other author of the ideal of intellectual life, Cardinal Newman, that I should turn to for inspiration, and in his fields of public reason on moral, religious, emotional and cultural life that I should plant my next season’s crops. So, I do find that a turn to other traditions of public and private thought are those that must sustain me over the years ahead.

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